Sunday, July 28, 2013

Thoughts on Le Tour, 2013

2013 brought the 100th Tour de France, and what a show they put on.  From the early stages in stunning Corsica, via the French Riviera, northwards to one of the most scenic stage finishes ever at Mont Saint-Michel, and an extensive programme of mountain stages towards the end of the race, before an unforgettable evening finish on the Champs-Elysees last Sunday in Paris.  It was a three-week celebration of cycling, and as always, a celebration of the French landscape.  And for British cycling, it was 'two in a row'.

Chris Froome made an impressive breakthrough in last year's Tour, and appeared to be a potential GC winner had he not been instructed to take a back seat to Team Sky's 2012 main man Bradley Wiggins. Froome went on to do some serious damage at last year's Vuelta so by the time this year's TdF came around he was being backed as the favourite for this year's race.  But the big question was - who would lead Team Sky?  That was answered when Wiggo withdrew from the race due to illness and injury, shortly before it was due to start.  Froome was installed as team leader and off he went.....

The 100th tour didn't have the best of starts though - with a massive crash and the Orica GreenEdge team bus stuck under under the stage finishing line gantry.

At this year's Tour, Mark Cavendish was racing in the British road race champion's jersey which he won a few weeks ago in Glasgow. Cavendish of course left Team Sky for Omega Pharma Quick Step, however it was noted by commentators during the race that he was lacking the relevant support from his team and this needs to be developed.  Two stage wins did come, which is still a great achievement - but so much is expected from him every year that this would be considered an unsuccessful year for him. Mark has matured in recent years however after a collision with Tom Veelers earlier in the race, we got a glimpse of the immaturity and petulance of the old Mr Cavendish, who proceeded to temporarily snatch a reporter's microphone.  The one thing we can be sure of in cycling though is that nothing lasts forever and new names will come along to dethrone the old champions.  And so it was in this year's tour - Marcel Kittel began the race with a stage win and a yellow jersey, and ended it with a win in Paris bringing Cav's run of 4 wins to an end.

The green jersey competition was sewn up very early though - Peter Sagan proved that last year was no fluke.  I still feel that in time he could develop into an all-rounder capable of winning more than the green jersey.  He's also brought fun and personality to cycling, with his 'wheelies' and having won the green jersey again, he took the theme to great lengths in Paris...

Talking of green, the first week of the race ended up being dominated by the Aussie team Orica GreenEdge. Their bus may have got stuck on day 1 but their riders were on the (Green) edge of glory, as two of them - Simon Gerrans and Daryl Impey - held the yellow jerseys for two days each before that crucial win by Chris Froome on Mont Ventoux.

Going off-topic for a minute, I''d just like to mention how much I liked Pierre Rolland's King of the Mountains onesie (pictured above).  It wasn't to everyone's taste though, but I don't care - I love it!

Rolland had to eventually relinquish his KoM jersey, to Chris Froome then newcomer Nairo Quintana from Colombia.  In the 100th Tour de France, French cyclists didn't have too many reasons to be cheerful as there was only one stage win for a French cyclist, Christophe Riblon on the iconic Alpe D'Huez.

Nairo Quintana was this year's biggest breakthrough in Le Tour and I definitely see him as being the main competition for Chris Froome in the years to come.  The Tour is won in the mountains and Quintana is an excellent climber - winning the KoM competition and also the white jersey for best young rider (he's 23 although I thought he was a lot older than that when I first saw him), and of course finishing 2nd overall to Chris Froome.  It was Quintana who turned out to be Froome's toughest competitor, and not Alberto Contador.

After that triumphant stage 8 win at Mont Ventoux, Chris Froome took the yellow jersey and held it all the way to Paris.  At first I was a little annoyed and bitter about this as I feel this had killed the race, but in fact it actually demonstrated Froome's ability as an all-rounder.  He won three stages (two mountain stages and an individual time trial), and these were the stages which mattered.  Of course we are in the age of cycling where everyone who is successful automatically must be doping, right?  At least that was the main tone of a heated press conference after the Ventoux stage win.  Froome defended himself assertively, but with dignity. But the allegations continued in the French press and the internet community.  Eventually, Team Sky provided L'Equipe with a dossier of Froome's climbing data from the past two years, to prove that this was no fluke.

I am in favour of lifetime bans for cyclists (and other athletes) who take part in doping - but such is the nature of the sophisticated methods of doping used in cycling, that no-one ever seems to get caught at the time, but years later we learn the shocking truth.  After the Armstrong affair, a cyclist may come forward and admit to being part of a doping programme, say 10 or 15 years ago, but they conveniently get around this by waiting till the end of their career to do so.  Shortly after announcing his retirement from cycling this past week, Aussie sprinter Stuart O'Grady admitted to doping in 1998.  I found this particularly disappointing - he's been a popular and enduring presence in the Tour over the years but will now only be remembered as a cheat.

I want to believe that Chris Froome won the 100th Tour - and probably more to come - thanks to hard work and sheer cycling talent, rather than by any artificial means.  In his winning speech on the podium in Paris, Chris Froome said that "this is one yellow jersey that will stand the test of time", referring to the 7 blank spaces in the cycling history books where Lance Armstrong's name used to be.  Froome is an articulate and dignified winner, a million miles away from Armstrong's unpleasant arrogance.

Chris Froome holds a British passport and rides for a British team, but he is an African by birth and upbringing.  It would be a fantastic legacy of his Tour win if, like the Olympians of London 2012, he could 'inspire a generation' of African cyclists, especially from Kenya, the country where he was born.  How good it would be to see Kenyan cyclists in the Tour de France!

Above: individual jersey winners L-R Nairo Quintana, Chris Froome, Peter Sagan.

So, last Sunday night the 100th Tour de France came to an end, with an unforgettable final stage where the cyclists went right round the Arc de Triomphe instead of just in front of it.  The Arc was also the centrepiece of a stunning light show after the stage finished.

You never want Le Tour to end....but don't worry, the 101st is just 48 weeks away!  And it all starts in....Yorkshire!

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